LOS ANGELES – Kristen Bell and network TV are a match made in heaven.
Her sitcom “The Good Place,” in which a recently deceased brat gets misassigned to the swanky neighborhood in the afterlife, does offer an original storyline and gentle irreverence that won’t require a litany of Hail Marys from viewers. (Kristen Stewart and the Eagles suffer more abuse than the Pope.)
But the NBC series, which concludes its first season Thursday with back-to-back episodes, has earned the title of network TV’s best new sitcom largely on the back of Bell, along with her all-star wingman Ted Danson as a charmingly flummoxed guardian angel.
“The first people I pitched it to, besides Universal and NBC, were Kristen and Ted,” said creator Michael Schur (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation”). “Part of the benefit of doing that was that Kristen and Ted specifically are in a position in their lives where they deserve to know what they’re getting into.”
Danson’s small-screen credentials were well established during his bartending stint on “Cheers,” followed by a series of sly turns on “Damages,” “Bored to Death” and “Fargo.”
Bell was more of a question mark. Her three-year stint as junior detective Veronica Mars generated enough of a fan base to justify a 2014 reunion movie. But in the decade since her UPN series went off the air, she’s played second fiddle to Don Cheadle (“House of Lies”), Mila Kunis (“Bad Moms”) and every young girl’s favorite tune (“Frozen”).
“Place” proves she can still handle top billing. Her character, Eleanor Shellstrop, was such a bad seed on Earth, she earned a lifetime ban from Build-A-Bear. Her new digs don’t suddenly bring out the saint in her. At one point, she contemplates having a tryst with one of heaven’s genuine gold-card members, if only because they share the same first name.
“The narcissist thing is kind of hot,” she says.
But Eleanor also has a conscience, even if it occasionally takes a back seat to free champagne and shrimp. In the season finale, she’s poised to be shipped off to less-than-idyllic accommodations to save her new friends from a similar fate.
“One thing that I love doing is finding someone inherently likable on the page and figuring out how to challenge myself to reformulate her and physicalize her into someone that you have to root for,” Bell said recently at Universal Studios, where the show is shot. “I didn’t want her to have any, like, screws loose. I wanted to be able to know the situations that he wanted to show so that I could justify her behavior.”
Not that Veronica and Eleanor would be besties. At least not at first.
“I think Veronica Mars roots for the underdog and thinks of other people, and maybe that’s not Eleanor,” she said. “But what I learned on ‘Veronica Mars’ is that while I was never a particularly snarky person in my personal relationships, I sort of have a feel for that kind of delivery. I can do sarcasm pretty well — or at least in a way that some people seem to believe and enjoy.”
Schur’s eye for casting didn’t end with his two marquee stars. The rest of the ensemble consists of relative unknowns, but they keep up with their more famous castmates. Together, it’s one of the most diverse casts on television.
Schur insisted that the characters’ racial heritages reflect the global pool that heaven’s gatekeepers would get to select from. Of the 14 actors who have appeared on at least three episodes, half have been people of color.
“This is not typical of what I get to do,” said regular William Jackson Harper, who plays the studious Samaritan who wins over Eleanor with both his big heart and toned physique. “I’m usually playing some version of weirdo or nerd.”
Even more refreshing is the casting of Filipino actor Manny Jacinto in the role of sweet lunkhead Jason Mendoza, who also seems to have accidentally scored an upgrade to heaven. His sins as a mortal include seeing the Red Hot Chili Peppers in concert more than 50 times. Mendoza’s make-out scene during a recent wedding may seem pretty tame, but on the small screen, where Asian-American males rarely get to be eye candy, it’s a bit of a breakthrough.
“We’re killing the stereotype of the smart ‘Karate Kid’ Asian guy,” Jacinto said.
While “Place” premiered to 8 million viewers, it has since settled in with an average draw of well less than 4 million a week, which places it squarely in the middle of the 20 new network shows that premiered in the fall. CBS’ “Kevin Can Wait” leads the ratings scoreboard with more than double that audience. NBC has yet to determine the fate of “The Good Place.”
Bell, for one, seems eager to return.
“Movies are really fun, but they’re like camp where you’re like, ‘We’re going to be friends forever’ and then sometimes you are and sometimes you’re not,” she said. “But television is like high school where you get to have deeper and stronger relationships with people. I like playing the same character day in and day out, and seeing where Michael [Schur] takes her.”
Let’s pray this class stays in session.